Why is recycled polyester or rPET considered a sustainable textile?


Why is recycled polyester considered a sustainable textile? 

plastic_bottles

Synthetic fibers are the most popular fibers in the world – it’s estimated that synthetics account for about 65% of world production versus 35% for natural fibers.[1] Most synthetic fibers (approximately 70%) are made from polyester, and the polyester most often used in textiles is polyethylene terephthalate (PET).   Used in a fabric, it’s most often referred to as “polyester” or “poly”.

The majority of the world’s PET production – about 60% – is used to make fibers for textiles; about 30% is used to make bottles.   It’s estimated that it takes about 104 million barrels of oil for PET production each year – that’s 70 million barrels just to produce the virgin polyester used in fabrics.[2] That means most polyester – 70 million barrels worth –  is manufactured specifically to be made into fibers, NOT bottles, as many people think.  Of the 30% of PET which is used to make bottles, only a tiny fraction is recycled into fibers.  But the idea of using recycled bottles – “diverting waste from landfills” – and turning it into fibers has caught the public’s imagination.

The reason recycled polyester (often written rPET) is considered a green option in textiles today is twofold, and the argument goes like this:

  1. energy needed to make the rPET is less than what was needed to make the virgin polyester in the first place, so we save energy.
  2. And  we’re keeping bottles and other plastics out of the landfills.

Let’s look at these arguments.

1) The energy needed to make the rPET is less than what is needed to make the virgin polyester, so we save energy:

 

It is true that recycling polyester uses less energy that what’s needed to produce virgin polyester.  Various studies all agree that it takes  from 33%  to 53% less energy[3].  If we use the higher estimate, 53%,  and take 53% of the total amount of energy needed to make virgin polyester (125 MJ per KG of ton fiber)[4], the amount of energy needed to produce recycled polyester in relation to other fibers is:

Embodied Energy used in production of various fibers:

 

energy use in MJ per KG of fiber:

hemp, organic

2

flax

10

hemp, conventional

12

cotton, organic, India

12

cotton, organic, USA

14

cotton,conventional

55

wool

63

rPET

66

Viscose

100

Polypropylene

115

Polyester

125

acrylic

175

Nylon

250

rPET is also cited as producing far fewer emissions to the air than does the production of  virgin polyester: again estimates vary, but Libolon’s website introducing its new RePET yarn put the estimate at 54.6% fewer CO2 emissions.  Apply that percentage to the data from the Stockholm Environment Institute[5], cited above:

KG of CO2 emissions per ton of spun fiber:

 

crop cultivation

fiber production

TOTAL

polyester USA

0

9.52

9.52

cotton, conventional, USA

4.2

1.7

5.89

rPET    

5.19

hemp, conventional

1.9

2.15

4.1

cotton, organic, India

2

1.8

3.75

cotton, organic, USA

0.9

1.45

2.35

Despite the savings of both energy and emissions from the recycling of PET, the fact is that it is still more energy intensive to recycle PET into a  fiber than to use organically produced natural fibers – sometimes quite a bit more energy.

2) We’re diverting bottles and other plastics from the landfills.

 

That’s undeniably true,  because if you use bottles then they are diverted!

But the game gets a bit more complicated here because rPET is divided into “post consumer” PET and “post industrial” rPET:  post consumer means it comes from bottles; post industrial might be the unused packaging in a manufacturing plant, or other byproducts of manufacturing.  The “greenest” option has been touted to be the post consumer PET, and that has driven up demand for used bottles. Indeed, the demand for used bottles, from which recycled polyester fibre is made, is now outstripping supply in some areas and certain cynical suppliers are now buying NEW, unused bottles directly from bottle producing companies to make polyester textile fiber that can be called recycled.[6]

Using true post consumer waste means the bottles have to be cleaned (labels must be removed because labels often contain PVC) and sorted.  That’s almost always done in a low labor rate country since only human labor can be used.   Add to that the fact that the rate of bottle recycling is rather low – in the United States less than 6% of all waste plastic gets recycled [7].  The low recycling rate doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to try, but in the United States where it’s relatively easy to recycle a bottle and the population is relatively well educated in the intricacies of the various resin codes, doesn’t it make you wonder how successful we might be with recycling efforts in other parts of the world?

pet-recycling-graph-2SOURCE: Container Recycling Institute

There are two types of recycling:  mechanical and chemical:

    • Mechanical recycling is accomplished by melting the plastic and re-extruding it to make yarns.  However, this can only be done  few times before the molecular structure breaks down and makes the yarn suitable only for the landfill[8] where it may never biodegrade, may biodegrade very slowly, or may add harmful materials to the environment as it breaks down (such as antimony).  William McDonough calls this  “downcycling”.
    • Chemical recycling means breaking the polymer into its molecular parts and reforming the molecule into a yarn of equal strength and beauty as the original.  The technology to separate out the different chemical building blocks (called depolymerization) so they can be reassembled (repolymerization) is very costly and almost nonexistent.

Most recycling is done mechanically (or as noted above, by actual people). Chemical recycling does create a new plastic which is of the same quality as the original,  but the process is very expensive and is almost never done, although Teijin has a new program which recycles PET fibers into new PET fibers.

The real problem with making recycled PET a staple of the fiber industry is this:  recycling, as most people think of it, is a myth.  Most people believe that plastics can be infinitely recycled  – creating new products of a value to equal the old bottles or other plastics which they dutifully put into recycling containers to be collected. The cold hard fact is that there is no such thing as recycling plastic, because it is not a closed loop.  None of the soda and milk bottles which are collected from your curbside are used to make new soda or milk bottles, because each time the plastic is heated it degenerates, so the subsequent iteration of the polymer is degraded and can’t meet food quality standards for soda and milk bottles.  The plastic must be used to make lower quality products.  The cycle goes something like this:

  • virgin PET can be made into soda or milk bottles,
  • which are collected and recycled into resins
    • which are appropriate to make into toys, carpet, filler for pillows, CD cases, plastic lumber products,  fibers or a million other products. But not new soda or milk bottles.
  • These second generation plastics can then be recycled a second time into park benches, carpet, speed bumps or other products with very low value.
  • The cycle is completed when the plastic is no longer stable enough to be used for any product, so it is sent to the landfill
    • where it is incinerated (sometimes for energy generation, which a good LCA will offset)  -
    • or where it will hold space for many years or maybe become part of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch![9]

And there is another consideration in recycling PET:  antimony, which is present in 80 – 85% of all virgin PET[10], is converted to antimony trioxide at high temperatures – such as are necessary during recycling, releasing this carcinogen from the polymer and making it available for intake into living systems.

Using recycled PET for fibers also creates some problems specific to the textile industry:

  • The base color of the recycled polyester chips vary from white to creamy yellow, making color consistency difficult to achieve, particularly for the pale shades.  Some dyers find it hard to get a white, so they’re using chlorine-based bleaches to whiten the base.
  • Inconsistency of dye uptake makes it difficult to get good batch-to-batch color consistency and this can lead to high levels of re-dyeing, another very high energy process.  Re-dyeing contributes to high levels of water, energy and chemical use.
  • Unsubstantiated reports claim that some recycled yarns take almost 30% more dye to achieve the same depth of shade as equivalent virgin polyesters.[11]
  • Another consideration is the introduction of PVC into the polymer from bottle labels and wrappers.
  • Many rPET fibers are used in forgiving constructions such as polar fleece, where the construction of the fabric hides slight yarn variations.  For fabrics such as satins, there are concerns over streaks and stripes.

Once the fibers are woven into fabrics, most fabrics are rendered non-recyclable  because:

  • the fabrics almost always have a chemical backing, lamination or other finish,
  • or they are blends of different synthetics (polyester and nylon, for example).

Either of these renders the fabric unsuitable for the mechanical method of recycling, which cannot separate out the various chemicals in order to produce the recycled yarn; the chemical method could  -   if we had the money and factories to do it.

One of the biggest obstacles to achieving McDonough’s Cradle-to-Cradle vision lies outside the designers’ ordinary scope of interest – in the recycling system itself. Although bottles, tins and newspapers are now routinely recycled, furniture and carpets still usually end up in landfill or incinerators, even if they have been designed to be  recycled [12] because project managers don’t take the time to separate out the various components of a demolition job, nor is collection of these components an easy thing to access.

Currently, the vision that most marketers has led us to believe, that of a closed loop, or cycle, in which the yarns never lose their value and recycle indefinitely is simply that – just a vision.  Few manufacturers, such as Designtex (with their line of EL fabrics designed to be used without backings) and Victor Innovatex (who has pioneered EcoIntelligent™ polyester made without antimony),  have taken the time, effort and money needed to accelerate the adoption of sustainable practices in the industry so we can one day have synthetic fabrics that are not only recycled, but recyclable.


[1]“New Approach of Synthetic Fibers Industry”, Textile Exchange, http://www.teonline.com/articles/2009/01/new-approach-of-synthetic-fibe.html

[2] Polyester, Absolute Astronomy.com:http://www.absoluteastronomy.com/topics/Polyester and Pacific Institute, Energy Implications of Bottled Water, Gleick and Cooley, Feb 2009,http://www.pacinst.org/reports/bottled_water/index.htm)

[3] Website for Libolon’s RePET yarns:  http://www.libolon.com/eco.php

[4] Data compiled from:  “LCA: New Zealand Merino Wool Total Energy Use”, Barber and Pellow,                                                                      http://www.tech.plym.ac.uk/sme/mats324/mats324A9%20NFETE.htm and  “Ecological Footprint and Water

Analysis of Cotton, Hemp and Polyester”, by Cherrett et al, Stockholm Environment Institute

[5] “Ecological Footprint and Water Analysis of Cotton, Hemp and Polyester”, by Cherrett et al, Stockholm Environment Institute

[6] The Textile Dyer, “Concern over Recycled Polyester”,May 13, 2008,

[7] Watson, Tom, “Where can we put all those plastics?”, The Seattle Times, June 2, 2007

[8] William McDonough and Michael Braungart, “Transforming the Textile Industry”, [email protected], May/June 2002.

[9] See http://www.greatgarbagepatch.org/

[10] Chemical Engineering Progress, May 2003

[11] “Reduce, re-use,re-dye?”,  Phil Patterson, Ecotextile News, August/September 2008

[12] “Taking Landfill out of the Loop”, Sarah Scott, Azure, 2006

Source: http://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2009/07/14/why-is-recycled-polyester-considered-a-sustainable-textile/#_ftn6

 


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